With its first incarnation being Twilight fanfiction devoured ravenously by Twilight Moms, Fifty Shades was first introduced the world as “mommy porn” – erotica that “primarily appeals to the sensibilities of mothers and housewives.” I’m not exactly sure that the average housewife or mother is bored or frustrated enough with her own sex life to find Fifty Shades fulfilling on multiple levels of eroticism. As saccharinely escapist as some of their novels tend to be, the bulk of the Harlequin Empire is made up of books that more than adequately spice up boudoir reading without resorting to the extremely graphic, violent, or manipulative methods that drive Fifty Shades. All in all, I suppose that what I’m trying to say here is that I find the fact that it is so popular rather disturbing and, quite frankly, horrifyingly telling of the current state of the human condition.
Obviously I am not a fan – in the slightest iota – of EL James and Fifty Shades of Grey, but it’s not because I’m a practising Catholic abstaining from pre-marital sex. Always a fine example of curiosity killing the cat, I decided to read the book when it came out in order to be able to see what all the fuss was about, and defend my preconception of it as a forest-killing, dumbed-down excuse for a novel. Already knowing that its origins were in Twilight fanfiction, I was expecting it to be horrible.
That being said, I was horrified at how horrible it actually was. From its constant deviation from some of the most basic grammatical structures (comma-spliced sentence fragments can be found in abundance here) to the more devastating consequences of its carnally-driven plot, there is nothing edifying on any page. If any part of it had been marketed as what not to do in a relationship, then maybe I’d have less of a problem with how this book has taken the world by storm.
But no part of this book is marketed as such by any of the powers that put it in widespread public existence, which leads me to question how much of modern humanity actually thinks about what it reads anymore.
I wrote in a previous post about how writing should have integrity, and part of that integrity is doing proper justice to one’s subject – which does not happen here, either with sex or with the characters portrayed. Sex – vanilla, BDSM, or any flavor in between – is more than just mere entertainment or gratification. There’s a lot involved in sex on all different levels of human existence, and to disregard any of them is to disregard the entire facet of humanity associated therewith. There are countless shades of grey in the spectrum of love and sexuality, but in Fifty Shades not one of them is tinted with real love. Also, although I have no firsthand experience with the sexual culture of BDSM, I do know that it is a much more complex, intricate, and psychologically-driven than the way EL James (mis)represents it in the trilogy. In Fifty Shades its codes of conduct and etiquette are entirely ignored as it is stripped down to its most basic elements, which are then twisted by and embellished with James’ own half-baked ideas of what a dominant/submissive arrangement looks like…and then tastelessly marketed as “true love.”
Thrust into this morally murky bubble, the main characters lose any kind of edifying traits themselves – which is even more of a shame, in my opinion, because taken out of the context of Fifty Shades and separated from one other there actually might be some potential in both Ana Steele and Christian Grey. Outside of Fifty Shades and apart from one another in better-written, better-researched novels, they truly could have been different. If she’d been put through the hoops of heartbreak, doubt, and drastic change by anyone other than Christian Grey, Ana might have become a stronger, confident, and truly independent woman; thus her story could have been a proper coming-of-age. Christian’s troubled past and sexually psychotic mind, explored by more capable and knowledgeable talent, could have put him in the running for a millennial re-envisioning of a brooding, stormy-eyed Victorian antihero who might have truly been saved by anyone other than Anastasia Steele.
Alas, both characters were forged by a mind that could do neither of them any such justice – and that, in turn, does not do anyone in the real world any justice either. Ana as the so-called “submissive” not only belittles the struggle of any woman anywhere who has gone through the harrowing experience of an abusive and manipulative partner. The way she keeps surrendering herself to Christian (and all his appetites), thus allowing him to actually use her for his own pleasure, within the context of EL James’ horribly skewed and extremely twisted misrepresentation of “love” undermines hard-won emancipated femininity. On the other hand, Christian as the so-called “dominant” adds an extremely unhealthy dose of aggressive misogyny to masculine strength to the point where the male’s traditional role as “provider and protector” is twisted into “possessor and enslaver.” In him, unconditional devotion is twisted into the skin-crawling id of a stalker; generosity is turned into bribery and guilt-manipulation; and leadership becomes an assertion of both physical and emotional power.
The way Ana allows Christian to use her body without much (if any) regard for her mind or her heart – even though she knows on some level that this is exactly what he’s doing – enforces the erroneous message to women that sex is how you win a man and keep him in your life. His countless abuses of her, in turn, send the message to men that a woman’s admiration of a man’s strength can be twisted and bent as far as it can go in order to obtain the highest amount of gratification for him. Her co-dependence on him and her delusions of being his “saving grace” only serve the final end of his sexual gratification, which only comes about after he has both figuratively and literally beaten her to his will.
This is the bottom line of what’s wrong with Fifty Shades of Grey: the whole “mommy porn” demographic aside, these books have been read by young women who are much, or even exactly, like Ana. The other part of EL James’ international audience is young, inexperienced, impressionable, and naive enough to fall into the many traps set up by Christian Grey as a horrible misrepresentation of modern masculinity and male sexuality. There are men like Christian Grey in the real world, but they’re not intangibly contained on a page or a screen out here – and the fact that a whole slew of young women are entering the real world with the expectation or hope of finding their own Christian Grey is frightening in that flesh-and-blood abusers, manipulators, rapists, stalkers, and misogynists are enabled and even eventually legitimised by their uninformed victims’ infatuation with Christian Grey.
Just think about it for a moment: what Christian Grey does to Ana Steele is abuse, and in some of the worst ways it could possibly be abuse. In the real world, though many shades of grey do exist between the white of what’s right and the black of what’s wrong, when it comes to any kind of abuse there is no grey area.
One thing that I did notice when going back to read my text was that I did indeed forget add (and have since rectified) that I read the book to see what all the fuss was about — to see if it actually lived up to its acclaim as the “greatest romance novel of the generation,” and should it not do that, be able to properly defend any preconceptions of mine against the arguments of its fans who would undoubtedly (and indeed, did) defend its “merits.”
I do not mean to criticize EL James for the actual act of writing — all the shortcomings of her grammatical, characterization, and other basic storytelling mechanisms aside, the fact that she wrote something that got published is definitely more than what many other artists may ever see in their own careers. What I do criticize is the irresponsible marketing that went into selling the book, and the subsequent irresponsible consumption thereof.
Sex and anything relating to it — “vanilla” or otherwise — is a volatile subject that, when mishandled in the name of “art,” “entertainment,” or “performance,” can cause emotional and psychological damage on a wide scale. With great power comes great responsibly, and anyone who practises any craft whose fruits become as widespread and globally accessible has a responsibility towards humanity to edify it through their art, not degrade it. If a small group of people had taken Fifty Shades to heart at this scale, it wouldn’t be a terribly huge problem; however the fact of the matter is, it has spurred a whole surge of women — and men — worldwide towards a lifestyle that is not befitting of their dignity as humans. And I’m not talking about the BDSM culture, either: like I said in the original post, the relationship in Fifty Shades is one of extreme abuse that popular culture has now come to view as desirable in real life.
If you’re looking for other reads that explore, in more depth, why and how the Fifty Shades relationship is abusive, I highly recommend the following: “Fifty Abusive Moments in Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Fifty Shades and the Fifty Shades is Abuse Campaign: Dispelling the Myths,” both by mrsmanics over at The Rambling Curl.